PSA: Religion and Public Actions

As many of my readers in the United States might be aware, June of every year is commonly held to be Pride Month, in the same way that February is African American History Month.  This a month when the now famous Pride Parades (which started out as riots) are held, along with any number of LGBTQ-oriented events: cookouts and parties, memorials and commemoration services, as well as any number of workplace events, such as how to understand and cope with LGBTQ diversity and the like.  I recently attended such a seminar in my own office, organized by the District of Columbia’s Office of GLBT Affairs, which was awesome.  There was little new information to me, seeing that I’m more versed in the legal miasma that affects the demographic I fall into, but it was helpful all the same.

Now, I work for the United States federal government.  At the time of this writing, the federal government does not yet have a nondiscrimination law that encompasses sexual orientation (LGB) or gender identity/expression (TQ, sometimes I), though certain branches of the government include this in their own branch-specific manner.  My own branch, for instance, prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, which is awesome, because it’s one fewer thing I can be fired for.  And, despite what you may think, many states and localities still don’t yet have their own employment nondiscrimination acts (ENDAs), so in many parts of the US, I can still be fired, not hired, or denied a promotion for being who and what I am.  I’m glad I can work where I am openly and freely, but not everyone is aware of the rights and restrictions on LGBTQ people.

It wasn’t a large seminar, and about half the people in attendance were supervisors or other employees in some managerial position.  One of the more important bits of discussion we had was on the topic of homophobia (fear and intolerance of non-normative sexual orientations) and transphobia (ditto but for people with non-normative gender identity or expression).  Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) offices have to deal with this more and more as more people feel confident and safe enough to report harassment fueled by homophobia and transphobia, but it can sometimes be a sticky situation for managers and EEO personnel.  Sadly, the topic was cut off due to time constraints and we had to move onto other topics, but it did bring up important aspects of how to respect the needs of LGBTQ employees.

Specifically, how should we balance the needs of LGBTQ employees with those of religious employees?

In many ENDAs, religion is a protected attribute that one cannot be penalized for; I cannot fire you, not hire you, deny you a promotion, or cause a hostile work environment against you due to your exercise and practice of religion or the lack thereof.  In my office, the same thing goes for your sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.  However, due to the ever-increasing polarization and social aggression between certain (by no means all!) religious groups and people and those who identify as LGBTQ, supervisors sometimes feel the need to balance the needs of both groups and see if there’s any middle ground to take.  After all, we have freedom of speech and of religion as enshrined in our Constitution, so it’s not fair to penalize someone for their speech or views as promoted by someone’s religion, nor is it fair to penalize someone for their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.

If you’re going to resort to the First Amendment to defend your views, well, I’ll let Randall Monroe of XKCD say it better than I can:

Not only that, but he says in the alt-text that

I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express.

Don’t get me wrong: I hold the free exercise of religion and the lack thereof to be one of the most important fundamental concepts required for a democracy or civilized community on any level, and interfering with that is chipping away at a society that can peacefully coexist as a societal unit.  If you want to worship Christ as the Son of God, do so; if you want to worship God by honoring his prophet Muhammad, do so; if you want to venerate the Flying Spaghetti Monster, do so.  I will never tell you what to worship or practice, or how to worship or practice.

That, however, is not the point of the talk.  While I understand the need to live a prayerful, worshipful, religious life, unless you live as a monk, you need to balance it with the life you live outside your scripture and outside your prayer room.  This isn’t to say you should compromise your religion by societal needs and expectations, but that you need to pick where in society you should go based on how you choose to practice (or not practice) religion.  If your social agreements and contracts conflict with your religious covenant and commitments, and if you’re not willing to change one, you need to change the other.  When you work in a public capacity that serves the public and makes use of public resources, either as an employee or a business owner, you are bound to serve the public in whatever way the public needs.  If you cannot fulfill those needs due to your private beliefs, then you should not work to serve them since you’re unable to serve them.  You have freedom of speech, but not freedom from your own speech; what you say and do are going to have consequences, and if your speech leads to harm and hostility in the public, you’re going to have to exercise your freedom of speech elsewhere.

Consider a hypothetical (at least in my case) situation where an out queer person (in any sense) works under a rather evangelical team leader.  The team leader refuses to meet one-on-one with the queer person or give them work fitting for their capacity and capability, and the team leader has dropped repeated comments about saving the soul of the queer person, how the queer person can find grace if only they would convert to being straight and normative, and the like.  The evangelical person feels like that’s their religious duty, after all, and they cannot be penalized for having that religious duty, but the queer employee also has the right to a non-hostile work environment.  If the evangelical person finds that their duty is motivated by scripture, and they cannot reconcile that with leaving the queer employee alone, then they cannot maintain a non-hostile work environment and is obligated to leave.  To me, it’s that simple.

Compare that with the recent drama about the cake bakery over in Colorado who was sued by a gay couple who wanted them to make them a wedding cake.  The owners of the bakery felt that their religion prevented them from supporting gay marriage in any way, and that includes making a cake for a gay wedding.  The gay coupled sued for discrimination and won, and rightly so, since this had violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination clause, which prohibits business from discriminating against its customers based on sexual orientation.  Many evangelicals and those on the homophobic far right feel that this state law discriminates against religious freedom, but it doesn’t.  You can practice whatever you want, but if you operate in a public capacity, you have to abide by public respect and law for those who don’t follow what you follow, or believe what you believe.  That bakery was open to the public, made use of public resources (roads, etc.), and received public assistant (tax breaks, etc.).  If they were privately owned or open only to people who paid a membership fee where the members had to agree to the bakery’s terms, then they could do whatever they want and would no longer be a public service; as it was, they were open to the public and could not discriminate against the public by means of sexual orientation.

Compare that, further, with the notion of certain pharmacologists and pharmacy employees who refuse to sell Plan B or contraceptive medicine to those who need it because they’re anti-abortion.  They feel that, by selling these drugs to people who got pregnant early on but want to prevent pregnancy, they’re encouraging abortion and promiscuity, which they find offensive.  However, as a medical professional, they’re obligated to help those who need it in the way the patient determines, and if that’s through the use of an emergency contraceptive, it’s not their place to deny them that without a legitimate medical reason.  In nearly all these cases, the only reason is religious, which is not a strong enough basis to deny someone this medical coverage and assistance when it’s not illegal and when they’re entitled to it.  If a pharmacologist cannot prescribe certain medicines to the public because their religion says so, then they should not be a pharmacologist serving the public.  Simple as that.

Your religion can be whatever you want it to be or not be.  It’s really up to you.  But when you interact with other people, you have to understand how to interact with people in a way that neither violates their sanctity of life nor human rights, nor in a way that violates your own religious beliefs.  You can’t have it both ways.  If you work in the public, you have to deal with the public, and if your religion prevents you from dealing with the public in certain ways and your job expects you to deal with the public in those same ways, you either need to change your religion or change your job.  Your beliefs are an onus on you, not on me, and your beliefs should not affect me if I don’t want them to affect me.  The moment they do, we have a problem, and it’s up to you to fix it or have it fixed for you.  The only balance that needs to be struck is that which preserves the freedom of religion and speech for everyone, and if your religion and speech is trying to impede the freedom of others, then your religion and speech will be shown the door.  You can still say the things you want to say, but nobody has to listen to it; you can still worship how you want to worship, but nobody has to be affected by it.

This applies to all of us, not just to evangelical Christians who want to turn every country into a Dominionist theocracy.  Many of us in occulture are bound to certain rules and regulations of behavior, sometimes instituted by our traditions, sometimes directly from our gods.  For the vast majority of us, we cannot live in a world where we’re recluses who focus solely on our spiritual path; we have a world to live in and interact with, and all the people, events, and drama that goes on in it.  If we find ourselves in a situation where we’re faced with breaking a greater law and a lesser law, we need to avoid breaking the greater law at the expense of the lesser law or simply abort the situation we’re in and find a way out as gracefully as we can.  Getting involved in situations that would cause you to deny your spirituality or gods is a lack of forethought, but sometimes it happens, and when it does, you need to make a choice as to whether you can please your gods while upholding the laws of the situation, whether pleasing your gods is worth it, and whether you need to continue denying your gods to continue another path in the world.  Learning to walk between the worlds in the sense of balancing your spiritual and mundane lives is a crucial lesson we all have to learn.  You can’t always have it both ways.

This has been a PSA.  Now, back to magic.

Follical Oppression

This was a post I made long ago back when I had a Facebook account, and then a Tumblr account.  I don’t have the original text anymore, so I rewrote it, but it’s among my better pieces of writing and thought.  I just felt like writing and getting this off my chest, but chew on this for a bit, if you like.

Imagine that you’re a brunette.  You were born that way, but it’s natural and it looks good on you.  The thing is, though, that you’re the only brunette you know: everyone else around you, everyone you’ve ever seen, is blonde.  Growing up, all your family members were blonde, as were your friends and teachers.  It’s all you ever saw, and once you developed a sense of self-awareness, you began to feel self-conscious about it; when your schoolmates developed a sense of meanness, they started making fun of you, calling you “poophead” or “dirty hair”.  Sometimes, you’d feel so bad about yourself that you’d run home crying from school, or you’d develop a fear of hanging out with anyone, wary that they’d judge you for something as stupid as your hair color.

Your parents hoped it was just a phase that you’d grow out of and become blonde once you grew up a bit.  Your friends generally lost interest in hanging out with you, not wanting to be associated with someone so stand-out weird.  The more you look at the world, the more you see how pervasive blondeness is: all the movies, television shows, and music videos you’ve ever seen have blonde people; all the people in the government or positions of power have blonde hair (when they have hair left, that is); all the ads you see in magazines or on the roadsides all feature blonde people.  It gets to you, and makes you feel less and less accepted over time.  It’s like everything is geared towards blonde people, leaving you with a feeling of isolation.  It wasn’t your fault that you were born a brunette, though; that’s just how you are.  

You graduate high school, and now that you’re a little older and trying to be accepted in the world and get into a good job or college, you’ve tried making over your image.  You tried cutting off your hair to pull the bald look, but that only got frustrating with how much maintenance that required, and people would continue to look at you funny but for less-mean reasons.  You tried wearing a hat, which covered up your hair and what eventually became your shame.  That worked even less well than buzzing it all off, since people would still be able to see it peek through under the brim or when you’d take it off.

You once tried dying your hair blonde, and that worked well.  People who didn’t know you before took a liking to you without question, and those who did know you instantly became more friendly.  People started accepting you because of such an easy trick, but it bothered you.  Blonde hair didn’t really match you or your look, and it was hard to get used to.  Plus, you had to keep redying your hair to make sure nobody saw the roots.  It wasn’t a permanent fix, though, and you knew that as soon as you cut off the illusion, people would go back to turning their back on you.  Dying your hair was costly, both in terms of money and mental health: to have to keep up the illusion, set up in utter privacy, around everyone in public, without letting anybody know, for an extended period of time is no easy thing.

Eventually, you hear of some blonde-purist groups who insist that anyone who isn’t blonde is, well, unacceptable to put it mildly.  They claim that brunettes and redheads (another rare color that you’ve only ever seen about in mocking jokes) are despicable people, only barely better than those freaks who dread their hair, dye it crazy colors, or decorate it with beads or extensions.  They absolutely hate anyone who isn’t blonde like them; although most people don’t associate with those purist guys, they don’t necessarily disagree with them either, or at least keep silent about their own views.  Still, even if you kept dying your hair every day to be blonde, your blood would always run cold when you see shirts or logos of those kinds of groups.  The fear that some people would find out about your secret sometimes has you curled up in bed at night, crying or trembling out of terror, hoping that nobody saw your roots that you only just noticed when you got home.

You know that some of your friends support the existence of brunettes, so long as they don’t try to dye their or others’ children’s hair, and some of your friends just don’t care or even like to keep brunettes and the like among their friends.  However, you’re often too scared to let anybody know about your secret, which shouldn’t really matter since it’s just hair color, but you know that there are people potentially surrounding you that would gladly hurt you for being what you are: alive and different.  One of your friends revealed to you that he’s also a brunette, but he just keeps his head shaven; still, you kinda admire the guy for even admitting it to you, even though you’re still too scared to reveal it to anyone else.  Your parents know, but they don’t mention it to anybody, and your old friends from school, if any were actually friends after the bullying, are all moved away and far removed from your current life.  As far as anyone around you knows, you’re blonde, and it’s killing you to keep that up, but you’re too scared that it might kill you worse if you don’t.

Now, replace every reference to blonde hair with straight, and brunette with gay or queer, and now you know what it can be like for a queer person to live in the world.  There’s so much discrimination going on against people based on their sexuality, sexual orientation, and sexual identity when it’s all really bullshit.  It’s no more a choice than it is what color your hair is: you can feign asexuality, keep it all a secret, or stay in the closet and pretend to be straight, but if you’re queer, you’re queer.  That’s really all there is to it.  Thinking some people are worse for liking who they like or dressing how they feel proper is about as ridiculous as wanting to hurt someone for being a different hair color.  Two cases in point: Kick a Ginger Day, and Aryan Pride.  Neither are cool, kids.  Don’t participate in either.

Plus, with there being so much in the social sphere oriented towards the straight crowd, it really is easy to just pass over the queer crowd and ignore their existence, needs, and dreams.  They’re still human, and desire human things, true, and I’m not suggesting that we have a queer-content quota for the media, but making the assumption that someone’s straight or gay off the bat isn’t helpful; that’s heteronormativity, and should be consciously toned down whenever possible around strangers until you actually know about them.